Q: What are the consequences of the successful test in August 1949 of the
first Soviet atomic device?
DH: Well, of course, August '49 when they tested the first Soviet atomic
device, it was a pretty tense period for the scientists...maybe even more so
than for the people managing the project. I once asked [physicist Iulii]
Khariton was he nervous. And he said no, you know, he knew pretty much that
this thing was going to work, that we had it right. But there is quite good
evidence that [the head of the nuclear program Lavrentii] Beria and the other
managers were much less sure. Of course, they did not understand the physics
of the design...they harbored doubts about the reliability of the scientists.
And I was told an interesting story. There was a Soviet physicist, a man
called Michel Yakov who was at the '49 test. He had also been one of the two
Soviet delegates to the American series of tests in Bikini Atoll in 1946. And
he was placed, he said, in a bunker somewhere near the Soviet test, and after
the test, he was to wait there, and sometime after the test, a group of cars
drove up very quickly and out stepped Beria and asked him, well did this look
like what you saw in 1946. And he said yes, sir, it did. So I think that's a
pretty clear indication that Beria -- you know, he needed some kind of
confirmation that this was the right thing. That he wasn't being sold a pup.
Q: So by '53 the Soviet Union is ready to test the "Layer Cake". At the
last minute the scientists realize that they haven't thought about the fallout
DH: Right, right, yes...when they get ready to carry out the August '53 test,
[the scientists] realize at the last moment, that there is going to be a
fallout problem, and they had better do something about it. And it shows, I
think, how focused they were just on the mechanics of the bomb itself, on
getting that right, and then only at the last minute does one of the
scientists, using in fact, the American publication on nuclear weapons effects
point out that, "Hey, look, this could be dangerous for the people living in
the area." So they have to carry -- in fact, they have to make a decision:
Should they delay the test or do a kind of very rapid evacuation of people, and
of course, that's what they do.
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